← back

Runa JohannessenUnintentional Monuments

mughrabi stamp

A minor earthquake followed by a heavy downfall in the winter of 2004 resulted in the partial collapse of the old stone ramp leading to the Mughrabi Gate in the Old City of Jerusalem. The gate leads to the upper level of Haram al-Sharif, or Temple Mount – for others than Muslims and Jews the very same place.11 A new wooden footbridge was constructed the following year by the Israeli authorities, intentionally set up as a temporary solution while plans were developed for a permanent ascent to the mount. Subsequently, the natural forces that caused the ramp to collapse unleashed far more than the sliding of earth and stone, as it triggered yet another political crisis between Israeli and Palestinian/Muslim interests in the events that followed. The crux of this crisis was located in the temporary structure of the footbridge – Mughrabi Bridge – from which unfolded a long chronicle of disagreements regarding the architectural layout of the infrastructure leading to Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount.

At the baseline of the Israel-Palestine conflict is the rivaling claim for sovereignty in every detail of the territory, from its outer boundaries, internal frontiers, the depth of its soil, the airspace above, and its structures on the ground. On the tiny piece of land, every transformation of the built environment can be a potent fuse for conflict, and especially so in Jerusalem, where the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount has the dubious merit of being one of the most contested points on earth. Stacked in layers of stone, the mount – monumental in size and significance – contains 3000 years of history: vertically, from the unhedged depth of the mount with the supposed remnants of Judaism’s First and Second Temple, through the mass of its multiple archeological strata of shifting rulers and periods, to the surface level’s Islamic holy sites of the Al-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock. Being at the symbolic and geographical heart of the conflict, Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount merges religious, ideological, archaeological, political, and military concerns and claims, resulting in frequent tensions and violent clashes between Palestinians and Israelis/Israeli security forces on, or adjacent to, the compound.

In the wake of Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem and the Old City in 1967, the top of the mount exceptionally remained in the hands of the Jordanian Islamic Waqf Administration, who are holding religious control over the site.22 The Mughrabi Gate, one amongst twelve entrances to Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, is the only gate open for non-Muslims. It is used as the main access point for Israeli security forces in instances where violence erupts, and is also serving as the entrance for an increasing number of controversial visits by religious Jews attempting to pray at the mount, despite rabbinical prohibitions. When the old ramp collapsed, the alteration of the physical access via Mughrabi Bridge sparked fear amongst Muslims that the long held status quo of restricted entrance would change and eventually lead to an Israeli take-over of the holy site.

After the collapse of the old ramp, the temporary bridge was set up in 2005 by the Israeli Antiquities Authorities (IAA) meanwhile plans for a new permanent bridge was being prepared. In 2007, a proposal for a new 200 meters long bridge of glass and steel calculated to hold the weight of 300 armed soldiers, military vehicles, and APC’s (armored personnel carriers) was presented.33  The proposal was first approved by the Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, but shortly after dropped as it caused the dispute to flare up once more, this time with objections from both Israeli and Palestinian/Muslim side. The long and fierce conflict, where even rumors of a Third Intifada was in the air, caused in the end UNESCO to get involved in order to monitor the Israeli ‘preventive excavations’ work that had started beneath the bridge. UNESCO concluded that the excavations were not harmful to Al-Aqsa, yet also stating that a new ramp should not be designed as a security tool for Israel, but rather restore the status quo ante44. Restoring the status quo ante effectively means coming up with an architectural design solution that provides the same level of access to the mount as before the collapse of the ramp. In the years that followed, the bridge dispute has several times culminated in renewed diplomatic crises. So far no plans for a new, permanent bridge has met the demands of the struggling parties, and Mughrabi Bridge is still standing, only slightly structurally modified since it was built in 200555.

Yet, in the fierce dispute about the Mughrabi Bridge, a small piece of paper had added a new meaning to the bridge that no-one could agree upon:

A stamp collection from 2012, issued by the Hamas Ministry of Telecom & Information Technology in Gaza, was released under the slogan ’Mughrabi Gate Bridge’. The collection contains four stamp sheets, each depicting one of the twelve entrance gates to Haram al-Sharif, while the larger and more expensive block stamp shows the Mughrabi Gate Bridge with Al-Aqsa Mosque visible in the background. According to the press release, the Minister of Culture, Mohammed Madhoun, said that ’…the postage stamp of the Mughrabi Gate of Jerusalem points on the tried obliteration [of] the monuments and Judaization of the Islamic and Christian monuments in the Holy City, and exposes this to all.’66

Stamps are often used to illustrate historical and cultural monuments, so selecting the gates to Haram al-Sharif – Islam’s third holiest place – for the annual stamp collection is a likely choice for an Islamic government. But in the postage stamp collection ’Mughrabi Gate Bridge’, the chosen representation of the holy place has shifted from an emphasis on the buildings (the mosque and the shrine) that are unmistakably regarded as sacred and valuable, to the disputed gate and bridge. Minister Madhoun’s statement tells us that the intention is to point at dangers that Haram al-Sharif is subjected to and to ’expose this to all’. According to the Hamas Ministry’s choice of portrayal, what denotes this danger is the temporary bridge and the political forces that converge in the disputed structure. Although it is a mere appendix to the impressive monument it hinges on, unsightly in comparison, the Mughrabi Bridge seems to have become signified as a monument itself, monumentalized on a small piece of printed paper distributed via postcards and letters.

Etymologically the word ’monument’ is derived from the Latin ’monere’, which means to remind, recall, or admonish. A monument is usually referred to as a building, statue, structure, or site made to commemorate a person or event, or appointed at because of its historical importance or interest. Typically we recognize an object’s monumentality through physical size, symbolism, and form. A monument is a carrier of collective memory within a solemn object, linked to the shaping and control of collective memory by political, religious, or cultural authorities, and is thus connected to historical time, as represented in the object.

In his photo-illustrated essay ’The Monuments of Passaic’ the American landscape artist Robert Smithson (1938-1973) gives a travelogue of a one-day journey he made to Passaic – his birthplace – in the New Jersey suburb of New York.77 Smithson describes the landscape of Passaic as filled with monuments; a bridge, water pipes, concrete abutments, a parking lot, a sand box; typical structures of a modern, industrial suburbia. In the essay, it appears as a given that what he sees are monuments; the first monument is introduced, almost in passing, when ’[t]he bus passed over the first monument’ (a bridge). The names he gives the structures, objects and sites are for the most part capitalized functional descriptions: The Great Pipes Monument; The Sand Box Monument; Monument with Pontoons; The Bridge Monument (or Monument of Dislocated Directions) and so on. The monuments are negligible and celebrate as little about the past as they promise about the future:

‘Passaic seems full of “holes” compared to New York City, which seems tightly packed and solid, and those holes in a sense are the monumental vacancies that define, without trying, the memory-traces of an abandoned set of futures. […] There was nothing interesting or even strange about that flat [parking lot] monument, yet it echoed a kind of cliché idea of infinity; perhaps the “secrets of the universe” are just as pedestrian – not to say dreary.’88

Mundane as they are, the monuments Smithson discovers for us are the inconspicuous components of a suburb – something that we usually not depict as being grand or important or commemorative. These monuments appear as such – as found monuments – through Smithson’s subjective gaze, and the substance and meaning he confers to what he sees. What Smithson conjures is related to the unintentional monuments we find in the classification by the Austrian art historian Alois Riegl (1858-1905);99 the unintentional monuments are those monuments that are not deliberately made as such, but considered so in posterity through the value they have accrued over time.1010 Yet in Passaic, it is the absence of a historical past and abandonment of the future that signifies the monuments. It is not by a consensual view upon the values the objects have accrued over time that Smithson defines the Passaic monuments, but rather by a rearrangement of the ordinary perspective on how spatial elements are situated in time and can be read and evaluated on a temporal scale.

The ‘reading of time in space’ – to draw on a title from the German historian Karl Schlögel – means to be sensitive towards the specific locations, places and objects where events happen.1111 Any historical process is rooted and unfolds in space, inextricably linked; history takes place quite literally.1212 Smithson offers us a perspective that is attuned to what meanings a landscape or an object might hold besides the conventional and apparent by working up unintentional monuments from parking lots, sandboxes and water pipes. The monument-gazing travelogue of Smithson positions the seemingly mundane objects in front in order to question and see a place and its abundant connections and breaks. Although Smithson seems to conclude that both past and future is abandoned in his reading of the suburban Passaic, it is his reading of time into a spatial specificity that enables us to recognize the historical processes of modernity in the structures – the monuments – he elicits from his journey. In this way, ’Monuments of Passaic’ is interesting to me as a point of departure for seeing how historical processes can be read in objects and landscapes.

Returning to the Mughrabi Bridge, it appears to me as a sort of unintentional monument that captures the conflict in a built structure. While the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount is the epitome of a political conflict embedded in architectural monuments – monumentalized by way of religion and historical-political narratives – the Mughrabi Bridge comes into view as a piece of ad hoc architecture that at first sight is rendered unimportant as an object per se. But although it is a crude structure in monumental surroundings, it is unintentionally becoming a monument itself when the political forces condense in it and accrue substantial importance beyond its functional scope.

The bridge is charged with a heavy load of history, not only because of its location hinged on the greatest monuments of them all, but also because the charged status of this ’temporary’ structure is in itself a product of the overall territorial conflict between Israel and Palestine. The Mughrabi Bridge monument converges the clashing of forces between the two conflicting parties into one, solemn object. It is not a condensation of historical value accumulated though the passing of time that makes the bridge a monument, like Riegl’s unintentional monuments, but the fact that it condenses the way in which this particular historical conflict unfolds in time at present, and lets us observe how history is actually taking place, here and now.

By contrast, the place where the bridge is situated – Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount – is indisputably a monument of immense historical value, and has recurrently been a centerpiece of conflict exactly because of this. The Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount is a significant player in the kind of aesthetic occupation the architect and historian Daniel Bertrand Monk writes about when pointing at the instrumental use of architecture to lay claims in the Israel-Palestine conflict. Monk describes monuments – sacred and aesthetic objects – that are used in such a way that ’architecture becomes the brute immediacy of the political’, and gives us a key to understand the utilitarian politicization of architectural monuments in the Israeli-Palestinian quest for land and sovereignty.1313 He contests the political immediacy accorded to architecture in the struggle, where monuments and their link to violence seems to be self-evident, thus, according to Monk, leading to the conflict’s ’inability to account for itself’. The exploitation of architecture’s symbolical power for the purpose of political ends – declared and legitimized by their aesthetic and sacred monument value – blurs the background for ones actions, and thus enables conflict to escalate rather than settle. Induced with historical and religious significance, these monuments often become the contested objects that disputes revolve around, and erupt from. This utilitarian logic is, however, not exclusive for monuments of the past. I would suggest to expand Monk’s view to encompass not only those built structures that are ascribed sacred and aesthetic value, but also the quotidian architectural structures that are shaped during and by the means of conflict. The conflict in itself is complicit in shaping a structure as the Mughrabi Bridge, simultaneously in its physical presence and the dispute that surrounds it.

When the Hamas government chose to promulgate ‘the tried obliteration of monuments […] in the Holy City’ and ‘expose this to all’ by depicting and distributing the perceived threat on a postage stamp, it was probably not with the intent to esteem the Mughrabi Bridge as a valuable monument. Yet, to monumentalize, in the meaning of seeing any place or spatial object as an unintentional monument, gives us a means to expose and understand the presence of historical and political powers in the shaping of space.

  1. 1 Haram al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary) in Arabic, and Har haBáyit (Temple Mount) in Hebrew, are two names for the same geographic place which have great religious significance for Muslims and Jews, respectively. Haram al-Sharif is in daily use also often just called by the name of the mosque, Al-Aqsa, although denoting the whole compound. I will in the present text use both names when naming the entire complex, or simply ‘mount’ or ‘compound’ as more neutral, topographical terms. The Arabic ‘Haram al-Sharif’ will be used when referring to the site’s importance for Muslims, and conversely ‘Temple Mount’ when referring to Jewish observation of its significance.

  1. 2 Waqf (’pious foundation’ or ’religious endowment’), is an Islamic religious trust holding properties in perpetuity.

  1. 3 The proposal was drawn by the Israeli architect Ada Carmi-Melamade

  1. 4 For additional timelines of events, see (IAA) (Rapoport) (IrAmim 2007)

  1. 5 A recent attempt to bypass the decision not to build unilaterally was seen in 2014, when it was revealed that the IAA had built a new temporary bridge under the ‘old’ temporary bridge. According to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, IAA’s intention was ’to replace the older structure until the diplomatic and security situation permitted the construction of a permanent bridge.’ As previously, Jordan objected, and Prime Minister Netanyahu ordered the removal of the unauthorized pathway. (Hasson and Ravid)

  1. 6 “A Short Introduction to the Philately of Palestine – the Stamps of Palestine 2012,” http://www.zobbel.de/stamp/pna_2012.htm

  1. 7 (Smithson 1967)

  1. 8 (Smithson 1967)

  1. 9 (Riegl 1996, 69)

  1. 10 In his essay The Modern Cult of Monuments: Its Essence and Development, Riegl makes a distinction between deliberate and unintentional monuments. According to Riegl the original sense of a monument is ’a work of man erected for the specific purpose of keeping particular human deeds or destinies (or a complex accumulation thereof) alive and present in the consciousness of future generations’. These are monuments that are deliberately made as monuments. Unintentional monuments, in contrast, are those ’historical and artistic monuments’ that either accrue their value over time or through their artistic volition and are considered being monuments not due to the original purpose of the maker but through the importance that is given to it by others. The historical monument gains its value through the passing of time and is conditioned by what has historically preceded it, to the particular point in past that it is referring to, and thereby has a commemorative value. The artistic monument is not dictated by commemorative value, but by the contemporary value ascribed to it. But whether ascribed for historical or artistic reasons, the value of unintentional monuments are defined by ourselves, and not by the maker. The ’ourselves’ Riegl is referring to, is the ’ourselves’ of the present, understood as a ‘collective self’ – which means what we agree upon and makes consensus for when ascribing an object’s importance as a monument. (Riegl 1996)

  1. 11 (Schlögel 2003)

  1. 12 Schlögel takes up on the classic philosophical relation between space and time with the intent to develop a narrative of simultaneity of time and space in historiographical practice. Usually, history is concerned with time, represented as things happening in chronological sequences of events, and privileges time over space. But, as Schlögel points out, any political or historical process or event is rooted in space and place. By ‘reading time in space’, Schlögel seeks to connect historical and spatial specificity by ‘spacing history in historiographical practice’, and seeing history as chronotopes rather than chronicles. (Schlögel 2003) and (Schlögel 2009)

  1. 13 (Monk 2002, 28)


Hasson, Nir, and Barak Ravid. PM orders removal of wooden ramp at Temple Mount, following pressure from Jordan. Haaretz, 03.09.2014. Available from http://www.haaretz.com/news/diplomacy-defense/.premium-1.613890
IrAmim. “The Mugrabi Gate Access Ramp: A Troubling Development in the Old City” Jerusalem:2007 http://www.ir-amim.org.il/en/report/mugrabi-gate-access-ramp-troubling-development-old-city
IAA. “The Mughrabi Gate Access Restoration Project” Accessed 30.06.2014. Available from http://www.mfa.gov.il/mfa/aboutisrael/state/jerusalem/pages/the mughrabi gate access restoration project – feb 2007.aspx.
Monk, Daniel Bertrand. An Aesthetic Occupation: The Immediacy of Architecture and the Palestine Conflict. Durham, N.C.; London: Duke University Press, 2002.
Rapoport, Meron. “A Bridge Too Far”. Haaretz, 15.02.2007 http://www.haaretz.com/weekend/week-s-end/a-bridge-too-far-1.213108.
Riegl, Alois. “The Modern Cult of Monuments: Its Essence and Development.” In Historical and Philosophical Issues in the Conservation of Cultural Heritage, edited by Nicholas Stanley Price, Mansfield Kirby Talley and Alessandra Melucco Vaccaro. Los Angeles: Getty Conservation Institute, 1996.
Schlögel, Karl. “History takes place” – Problems of a Topographically Sensitive Historiography. In Why People Live in Cities. The Hague, Netherlands, 2009.
Schlögel, Karl. Im Raume lesen wir die Zeit: Über Zivilisationsgeschichte und Geopolitik. München: Carl Hanser, 2003.
Smithson, Robert. “The Monuments of Passaic”. Artforum, 1967, 48-51.
Zobbel. “A Short Introduction To The Philately Of Palestine – the Stamps of Palestine 2012.” Accessed 18.08. 2014. http://www.zobbel.de/stamp/pna_2012.htm.

← back